(This piece is an old one from years ago, one of several I’ll be resurrecting here.)
My thirtieth birthday was what I call a marker day, a day declared to mark the end of my smoking. It did, too. Then, two years later, I thought I’d treat myself to just one hit, or maybe just a couple of drags . . . and before I knew it I was in search of another marker day.
I’ve had a number of them over the past 15 years, but before, they’ve always worked like magic. At will, I could quit for years at a time. This year, though, I ran through my marker days like . . . well, like cigarettes outside a courtroom.
A summer’s night, a grilled steak and red, red wine, and loving company quietly sharing easy conversation and slow cigarettes: no doubt about it, a smoke can taste good and feel satisfying. Yes indeed, a good smoke is one of the pleasures of this world. Tobacco, however, is one of those funny little things we call a luxury, a treat, a reward for a tough day or tough times, when in reality it is a way of insulting, punishing, and destroying ourselves.
So, after a year of smoking more than I ever had before, I declared my thirty-third birthday to be my final marking day, forever. For weeks I kept building it up in my mind, probably so I would embarrass the man in the mirror if I didn’t adhere to my declaration. More than once during that month, as I lit up I would hear myself thinking, “I can’t wait until I don’t have to do this anymore.”
My birthday arrived, and at bedtime I turned to that single cigarette I had saved especially for the occasion. The Last Smoke, The Lone Smoke. I turned off the TV, turned off all the lights except the lamp above the stove. I sat at the breakfast counter, just me and my enemy. I breathed in and breathed out, blowing smoke rings inside smoke rings, and I carefully tapped the ashes. As a farewell, I tried to reflect on all the good memories I associate with smoking, and I tried to remember all the reasons why I wanted to quit. At the end, I took two deep breaths and then one long, final drag. For the last time ever, I sent the smoke up and away in a stream that pushed through itself and unfurled and hung in the air until it ghosted away into the shadows. Then, I went to bed. It was over.
It is never over. After just a week, I decided that since I was doing so well I’d treat myself to just one more cig. After a few days of no nicotine, those “one, last smoke’s” never, ever taste as good as you imagine they will. Never, ever. Write that down. If you have one, though, you will have another, and damn if that second or maybe third smoke doesn’t taste better than any cigarette you’ve ever had in your life!
So, I spent October, November, and December claiming and disclaiming marker days. The Hempfield Service Plaza on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the last stop before my hometown, developed sentimental value: I was “quitting” there with almost every trip home, which during those days was nearly every weekend. There were some good starts, though, like Thanksgiving. I didn’t smoke for four days, which is over the hump, but I returned to my condo and spotted the two “last cigarettes” I had left in the crystal candy dish. New Year’s Day was more than adequately symbolic, but January 2nd was just another day to smoke away. My favorite attempt was the time my girlfriend and I were returning from visiting my mother. Maybe an hour into the five-hour trip, she decided she also would quit, and she would do it right then, at that moment. As I listened to her familiar speeches, I lit two cigarettes, and with a delayed smile to match hers, handed one to her. The rest of the trip we held a laugh-filled smoke-a-thon, trying to make ourselves literally sick of nicotine. All we succeeded in doing was recreating the special effects of Cheech and Chong crawling out of a car pressurized with smoke.
One night, talking on the phone with my bed-ridden mother and noticing my overflowing ashtray, I realized I would not be able to quit smoking until I got bored with it all, until it was not enough fun for all the trouble it caused. I had to outgrow it. Although powerful, the biochemical addiction wasn’t the hard half to overcome; the psychological component was the tenacious part. It was near then that I quit assigning myself the flimsy marker days. Like nicknames, they can’t be forced to last, only recognized when occurred.
I think I’ve made it, too. I’ve heard a habit isn’t a habit until you’ve had it for a month, so I’m over the line now. Occasionally I think of smoking, but I remind myself of how I felt with my last smoke on a day that begged to be considered the ultimate and final marking day in my life. That morning my mother died of cancer, and that night, outside in the January cold and dark, standing alone and trying to enjoy a smoke, I felt kind of stupid. It didn’t particularly feel like a last smoke, but I suspected it would be. A last smoke is usually like most broken couples’ last truly tender kiss: it’s in the past long before it is recognized for what it was.